What were you doing at midnight on February 4, 2009? Sleeping? Chomping down a late-night snack? Facebooking? If the latter, you were unwittingly celebrating Mark Zuckerberg’s creation on its fifth birthday.
Five years and 150 million users later, Facebook is still the topic of heated debate. What does this construct say about our society? What impact is it having? What social mores is it changing? These questions, and others, will continue to be posed and considered for years to come and, fortunately, Facebook will keep delivering material for speculation. Take, for example, the “25 Random Things” note racing through this social network’s veins like some epidemic virus. The object is to fill out a list of 25 things about yourself, a blend of the private and the personal, and publish it to your friends. They are then supposed to fill out a list about themselves in turn, and pass it on. As John Timpane of the Philadelphia Inquirer observes, after one person sent this note to ten others, and those ten sent the note to ten of their friends, “soon Facebook – a virtual living room where people hang out and tell everyone else what they’re doing and thinking – is awash with personal revelations, admissions, info once kept private.”
The question here is, is this practice evincing narcissism or simple hyperconnectedness? A sin indulged, or a new virtue evolving? As Timpane so astutely noted, you can call this narcissism if you want, “but it might be that the train left and you weren’t on it.” What then? If we take this hyperconnectedness as a new, evolving virtue, what does it mean, you know, for the future? Some “old garde” critics might see this and demonize it as the unhealthy practice of a group of individuals gone wrong. However, we can no longer dispute that this bandwagon is a vast majority of individuals; not just a faction which can be chatted about idly but largely ignored. They carry real weight.
Still a DoubtingThomas? Just direct your doubt to Detroit, where automakers are realizing that their only hope is to beg and plead for the attention of the “Millennial” generation: individuals to whom connectedness is the primary virtue for a life lived well. Whereas Baby Boomers sought out “horsepower, wide tires and dual exhausts,” carmakers are now recognizing that in order to appeal to millenial consumers – those born between 1982 and 2000 – they have to turn out models which emphasize technological connectedness, like “email capabilities, hookups for iPods, laptop computers and other gizmos.” And the time to make these appeals are now: “Ford estimates that by 2010, the 16-31 demographic will make up the largest chunk of the car-buying public,” and these unsuspecting millenials are not brand-loyal yet, so they make easy prey.
While I was researching and writing a thesis entitled “Facebook: Encouraging Authentic or Inauthentic Identity Construction?,” I have to admit belonging to that “old garde” I mentioned earlier. I couldn’t help but look around and see so much gone wrong; healthy communicative praxis abandoned; narcissism abounding. But, I’m willing to concede I may have been wrong. Perhaps what I, and others, saw as egocentrism might have been the individual lens refocusing on community. John Timpane demonstrates he has sharper eyes than mine as he chastises, “That communal aspect is what so much commentary misses about ’25 Random Things.’ It’s not just a list; it’s a communal exercise.” Timpane quotes an unscientific survey of 30 such lists, and notes that it uncovered nothing “vicious or unkind.” Instead, one of his sources characterizes the 25 Random Things list as ‘surprisingly supportive, sweet, even encouraging…’ [a nuturing thing friends do].”
Or was I wrong? Timpane quotes an email he received from Christine Rosen (whose work I respect a great deal), in which she affirmed “narcissism is narcissm: ‘For all of their apparently casual tone, these lists are not filled with random things. They are carefully and deliberately crafted efforts to market their makers as quirky and appealing people. The revelation of one person’s quirks can be endearing, but the broadcasting of hundreds of thousands of people’s quirks quickly devolves into tedious mass solipsism.'”
Of course, her logic is unassailable on at least one count: these 25 “random” things couldn’t possibly be random. In order to make that true, each individual would have to write down a host of personal things piled up in their closet and then somehow – by roll of the die, a random number generator, or spin the bottle – randomly select things to publish. I sincerely doubt anyone took that much effort into constructing their list, so we have to regard the “25 Random Things” note as a persuasive, meticulously articulated artifact.
Timpane also quoted family therapist Sara Kay Smullens, who suggested “people can fly to Facebook or other sites to avoid their flesh-and-blood family and friends. ‘It can be a substitute, one that doesn’t work, for an intimacy they can’t find in real life.’
I have to beg your forbearance as I reveal that for a handful of years, I was addicted to science fiction novels. I’m convinced everyone has that phase sooner or later. In any case, this situation reminds me of a motif running throughout Joan D. Vinge’s sci fi novel, Dreamfall. This book involves a struggle between futuristic humans and an alien race of humanoids with psionic powers (telepathy, telekenesis, etc – what good sci fi thriller doesn’t?). The main character of the book is a half-breed, partially human, partially endowed with some telepathic ability. As a result of his half-breed composition and a history of abuse from both camps, he has a mental “shield” erected constantly. When walking among groups of his mother’s people (the telepaths), he is snarled at, criticized, and avoided, because his mind is “closed off” from everyone else. Through this exchange, readers learn that this alien community has survived for generations with open hearts and open minds, total exposure between and among people, with nothing hidden.
Now, jumping back from science fiction into reality, I can’t help but notice some similarities here. Pre-Web 2.0, we were as disconnected as disconnected could be. We spoke on the phone, wrote letters, enjoyed each other’s physical company, but that was more or less it. Since the launch of Web 2.0, we have felt a compulsion to dig deeper, to find intimate secrets about ourselves and reveal them, whether through away messages or status messages which speak to our emotions at the time (and who can hide their emotions when in the throes of them, and when there aren’t any repercussions – such as judgement – from physical contact), or from blank “About me” and “Interests” sections which beg to be filled with details about our identity. No matter that we never had to address these questions before, and that maybe we were giving in too much (after all, just because a question is asked does not mean you have to answer it – but that’s a sickness the human race has faced in aeternum, and a topic for another day). We had questions to answer and we were damned if we weren’t going to give in, without due hesitation and deliberation to determine what is “right.” In the last twenty years or so, we have been two totally different species of humanity.
But back to an earlier question, where I asked: what does all of this mean for the future? This is where my science fiction reference come into play. The issue I’m most intrigued by now is: Who’s going to be the outcast? The one who shares all, or the one who shares none? Turn to Ayn Rand’s Anthem if you want, or the hundreds of novels written about the struggle between individualism and community. I, myself, will turn back to Psion, the first Joan D. Vinge novel in the trilogy which produced Dreamfall: In that book, the protagonist is taught an aphorism he can never quite shake, and which has haunted me from the first time I read it 12 years ago:
“In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is stoned to death.”